Why we have environmental problems
©2005 Anthony Benoit

Delivered at Connecticut College 4/24/05 in observation of Earth Day, 2005

We all know the story of the Bald Eagle chronicled by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. By killing the anopheles mosquito, the primary vector of malaria, DDT and other organochlorine pesticides have saved about 75 million lives since 1939 when Paul Mueller discovered its insecticidal power. Unfortunately, DDT breaks down very slowly in the environment and builds up in the tissues of predators. The compound disrupts the calcium metabolism of eagles and other birds that eat DDT-contaminated fish. If mama bird cannot properly metabolize calcium, her egg shells are thin and easily broken. Large predatory birds often lay only a single clutch of one or two eggs per year, and few were surviving. By the 1960ís, eagles and osprey were nearly extinct. In 1970, partly in response to Carsonís book, Nixon created the EPA, which immediately outlawed DDT. By 1995, eagles were elevated from federal "endangered" to "threatened" status.

These are the sorts of environmental problems that people will call to mind if asked to draw up a list. Typically people bring up pollution, resource depletion, solid waste, maybe pesticide residues in food or nuclear waste, or even something spooky like endocrine disruptors. Many Americans donít immediately think about unsafe drinking water, unless they are worried about extremely small amounts of synthetic toxins, even though diarrhea, often from contaminated drinking water, kills over 5000 children a day worldwide according to the World Health Organization.

When I have students compare their lists of environmental problems with mine, they are not too surprised that I include overpopulation in the list of problems, somewhat more surprised that I include wealth and poverty. I explain that specific problems, such as depleted fisheries or bad drinking water are just the symptoms of underlying systematic problems. Wealth allows people to consume resources faster than earth systems can regenerate or replace them. Poverty crushes peopleís ability to rationally develop resources for their own use.

You can read Carsonís book on pesticides, Paul Ehrlichís on population, or Al Goreís on global warming, but I want to talk about the underlying human causes of our current unsustainable relationship with the environment. These causes include:


In my experience, most people know little about where their food and water come from. Food comes from Stop & Shop; water comes from the tap. Cars come from the dealer or eBay. God knows where electricity comes from.

The lack of knowledge involves the mechanisms and processes that bring us our daily needs, as well as the consequences of those processes. If asked what daily activity causes the most water pollution, few people would guess lunch, though per capita wastewater generation from food production is about 500 gallons per day. (In contrast, we each flush about 50 gallons a day to the sewage treatment plant or septic tank.) Almost no one thinks about the six pounds of soil lost for each pound of food produced (as calculated by http://www.growbiointensive.org/biointensive/soil.html). And few think about the Inuit children poisoned by mercury from the coal fired power plant that may be generating the electricity lighting this room.

Ignorance is not limited to environmental impact. In pre-industrial times, people were intimately familiar with the processes that produced food and household goods. The urbanization that accompanied the Industrial Revolution pushed the untidy details of production behind walls, across the tracks, and eventually, overseas. Today, the technical sophistication of most devices and processes require special training to be understood. And even the technically literate are limited to their specialty.

Even well educated people often seem ignorant of the basic laws of physics: the conservation of mass and the conservation of energy. Science fiction movies are better if you ignore these. My wife hates when I point out that the alien has not consumed enough astronauts to have grown that big or to move that much. But, in the real systems that we depend on to meet our needs, these laws are unbreakable.

Our ignorance leads to uninformed market choices. We tend to react to marketing language as totems. Fortunately, "organic" now has a legally enforceable definition. But "all natural" doesnít. And even Coca Cola is made with all natural dehydrated cane juice. We react negatively without cause as well. My first year out of Yale I did research using nuclear magnetic resonance. When I told my old friends from Yale recycling they shrunk from me like I was radioactive. My work had more to do with farming than with Hiroshima, but the N word was shunned.


The flip side of knowing too little is knowing too much. In the last 20 years we have developed technology that allows us to detect parts per trillion concentrations of environmental contaminants. We are now aware of the presence of "chemicals" in our food, water, and air that we never before considered. That awareness leaves us in dilemma: We can make heroic efforts to remove or prevent contamination of unknown danger or we can decide to live with it. Regulators like the EPA are in an especially awkward position.


Denial is a deliberate (though largely unconscious) ignoring of problems, a coping mechanism that allows someone to carry on in spite of hardship. But as Bazooka Joe once said, if you ignore your teeth, they will go away.

Most of us donít want to know the suffering hidden in our grocery cart or clothes closet, though great consciousness-raising has occurred in these areas in recent years. Denial is the garbage bag at the curb, gone by morning.

Many have compared the USís dependence on oil to addiction. More Americanís die each year from smog than from terrorism, yet we get the Patriot Act and proposals for a weaker Clean Air Act.

Driving a Prius is a little like an alcoholic drinking light beer. To manufacture the car, which contains over 100 pounds of lead, more than 1000 pounds of hazardous waste is generated. A salamander migrating over the road on a mild rainy spring night to mate in a vernal pool on the other side is just as dead if run over by a Prius as by a Lincoln Navigator. After ten years or so, we are left with 2500 pounds of material that even if reused, will generate hazardous byproducts and consume tremendous amounts of energy in processing. If all Americans drove Priuses, US greenhouse gas emissions would decline by as much as 25 percent. But if everyone in the world drove Priuses the way we do, world greenhouse gas emissions would double.

If youíre going to drink all day, itís probably better to drink near beer than scotch but denial is still denial.

The so-called high price of gas is helping a little in this area. Iíve heard that there is a two year waiting list for hybrid powered Highlanders. Is driving a hybrid SUV like drinking a near beer and a shot?

But the price of gas is a good example of how current pricing systems do not allow the free market to properly inform consumers. According to research done by International Center for Technology Assessment, if all the external costs were included, gasoline should be closer to $15 a gallon, rather than $2. That more realistic price would create a waiting list for bicycles.

External costs could be thought of as institutionalized denial or as a government or corporate conspiracy, depending on your mood. Just as no one likes the lights thrown suddenly on in the bar, no one would like prices to suddenly jump up to reflect the true cost of what we are buying.

In her classic Limits to Growth, Donella Meadows presented ignorance and denial in the form of her space time graph. People are most concerned with what is near them in space, in time, and in kinship. We have difficulty putting effort into what we canít see, but donít try putting one in my backyard.

Denial has strange effects on our environmental concerns. We forget that the products of our economy, cars, toothbrushes, cell phones, and the wastes, are essentially the same stuff. No one would like to move in next to a Superfund site. Such a site is one where past or present releases of pollutants or contaminants have created sufficient health risk that the site is on the National Priorities List. The risk threshold is about 1 in 10000 additional cancer deaths. Brian McCarthy, an epidemiologist working for GEI Consultants told me that his risk analysis of the results of routine tests of household air show a risk above that level. Never mind not in my backyard; how about not in my living room.

Our denial may go deeper than simply sheltering our gentle natures from pollution and destruction. Perhaps we seek to deny life and death itself. In pre-industrial times, death was in the living room and field. Now it is largely on the X-Box, the DVD, and CNN.com. This is a double tragedy. By covering up the mayhem caused by our consumption, we allow the effluent of our production systems to destroy whole communities of creatures whose only offense is sharing the planet with humans. And by pretending that we will live forever, we risk losing the preciousness of each day.


I donít know if it is important to distinguish between denial and hypocrisy. I come close to flipping off a smoker who tosses a butt out the window. And I have been known to chase litter bugs to the next traffic light and toss their McDonaldís wrapper back into their car, stating "You dropped something."

But I am dumping as much invisible litter as the next guy. As I fill up my Civic, I donít usually stop to think that each gallon of gas that goes in will come out the tail pipe. Thereís nowhere else for it to go. One gallon of gasoline is converted to 18 lbs of carbon dioxide when it is burned in a car engine. 18 lbs is a lot of cigarette butts.


Before about 10,000 years ago, humans lived much as any other animal. Our activities were supported almost entirely by gathered biomass and other natural materials. With the invention, or discovery, of agriculture we started large scale distortion of natural systems to meet human needs.

Evan Eisenberg cleverly observed that during the agricultural revolution we formed a symbiotic triangle between Homo sapiens, ruminants, and annual grasses. These three groups are now arguably the dominant organisms on the planet. You will find the first one buying the other two at Stop and Shop.

An old, and perhaps obsolete, notion from ecology is community succession. When soil is exposed, either for the first time or following a disturbance, plant communities grow up in stages. The earliest are the pioneers, annuals who grow quickly and produce great quantities of seed to cover the new soil rapidly in the next generation. Perennials eventually get a foothold, storing some of their yearly production to get a head start in the next season. Eventually, a climax community, around here a deciduous forest, grows a complex and stable web of ecological relationships. In the later stages, the ratio of production to standing crop is lower. The biomass is more thoroughly used before being re-mineralized.

The American economy is similar to the early stage field. We produce quickly and use once. An annual like wheat or corn solves its problems with sheer reproductive power. William McDonough and Michael Braungart point out that the manufacturing systems developed since the start of the industrial revolution have much the same strategy. "If brute force doesnít work," they write as a mock motto for the industrial revolution, "then you arenít using enough of it."

We are victims of our own success. There was once a time when our ancestors did quite well to eat as much fruit, a good source of water soluble vitamins, as they could get their hands on. Their descendents crave sweets; we have responded by producing white sugar. Sometime ago on the African plains of the Pleistocene, open space allowed us to see approaching predators. Now we surround our suburban homes with mowed lawns, the runoff from which is depleting the oxygen at the bottom of Long Island Sound. Our symbionts, the ruminants, once a remarkably easy source of calories and protein, now send us to the cardiac ward.

Dualistic Thinking

One of the godparents of American environmentalism was Thoreau. His stay on Walden Pond exemplified a mythical right-way-to-live. His simplicity and self-sufficiency chastise the convenience and consumerism that plagues suburbanites. Never mind that he was playing at self-sufficiency in a friendís backyard, his heart was on the side of purity and goodness.

William Cronon has looked closely at the false dichotomy between wilderness and civilization and argued for the startling conclusion that wilderness is a human creation. His study of pre-colonial history, as chronicled in Changes in the Land, revealed the wildness that Throreau sought to return to was probably very similar to the artificial landscape created by the Wampanoag. In the controversial essay, "The trouble with wilderness," Cronon points out that in the 1800ís, Thoreau and others wrote about ungodliness of uninhabited places like the top of Mount Katahdin. Yet after the closing of the west, the myth of natural places, unsullied by sissified civilization, grew in American culture. One irony that Cronon shows us is that an official wilderness, such as Yosemite, can only exist as a result of government regulation.

What could be wrong with a mythical ideal of nature? The danger of dualism is that when we create an ideal, non-human image of nature, we are forced to remove humanity from the natural world. But literally, we cannot survive apart from nature.

So, inevitably this dualism overlaps with denial. In an essay entitled, "Are you an environmentalist, or do you work for a living?" Richard White described the contempt that the modern environmental movement seems to show for those who work in nature, and for the work they do. But White deftly points out that in the end, the work of all of us is as dependent on nature as is the work of a logger in the old growth of the Pacific Northwest.

In recent talks, Cronon has called for a humanist environmentalism by intriguingly asserting that biocentrism is anthropogenic.

We have no choice but to build our homes in nature and of nature. To recognize nature as sister and brother, or better yet, as the very same stuff as our blood and bone, is to value both humanity and nature. In such a kinship may be the basis for a civil relationship with the rest of the planet.

Basic Ecological Principles

Withstanding human influence is a very recent challenge to ecosystems, and most of the processes evolved long before such influence. Thus, the difficulties posed by human disruptions now.

In an ecosystem, matter is recycled and energy travels through once. Natural systems can be sustained for long periods of time provided they have a means of converting waste to raw materials and use only current energy input. Our system of production violates both of these principles. We consider ourselves most prosperous when we can most quickly dig things out of the ground, sell them, and then bury them again. What we are burying may be as valuable as what we dug up, but we have designed garbage so that it canít be sold.

We are using the solar energy that arrived on earth about 100 million years ago. They arenít making any more of that. Fortunately for us, there is more than enough sunlight reaching the earth today to accomplish our tasks. We just have not yet properly priced it relative to oil.

We often blame disposable products for our solid waste problems or for our voracious appetite for natural resources. The problem is that disposable products are not disposable. Instead they are merely products for whom the true lifecycle costs are external to the selling price.

The debate over conservation often pits economic interests against aesthetic. We want to protect as much pretty scenery as we can afford to. What we often miss is that the pretty scenery actually produces our air and stabilizes our climate. A monoculture farm is very expensive to run, and requires many environmentally harmful inputs of chemicals and energy because the natural work provided by soil ecosystems and predator-prey relationships are obliterated by the agribusinesses that run them.

We are doing better

The US economy is about 35 percent more energy efficient now than it was when I voted for John Anderson and his dollar a gallon gas tax in 1980. According to Jim Motavelli, writing in the January/February 2005 issue of E/The Environmental Magazine, wind power is the fastest growing segment of the US energy supply. We should also remember that the sweep of technology is not all bad. Petroleum allowed the US to stop hunting whales.

We can choose to reduce the harm we do. The Union of Concerned Scientists publishes The Consumers Guide to Effective Environmental Choices by Michael Brower and Warren Leon. It lists the following "most harmful consumer activities":

I can hear you all breathing a sigh of relief, thinking "Phew, for a minute I though he was going to list something I couldnít live without." Fortunately, breathing isnít on the list.

The book is actually an excellent source of information about what makes sense to give up and what doesnít. Fifty nine to 80 percent of our environmental impact in areas from greenhouse gases to toxic water pollutants is caused by three categories of activities: transportation, food, and household operations (heat, hot water, lighting, etc.). These then are the areas to concentrate on, by living close to work and selecting a fuel efficient car, by eating less animal products and more organic produce, and by choosing a modest and energy efficient home. Based on life cycle analyses, tt turns out not to make much difference whether we choose paper or plastic, pampers or diapers. But canvas grocery sacks and birth control remain excellent choices.

Our current stash of non-renewable resources has often been compared to a savings account, or if you prefer, the principle of the trust fund given to us by mother earth. Irresponsible children that we are, we are spending the principle, a practice that is obviously unsustainable. Making environmentally effective consumer choices is very helpful, like spending less of your trust fund, but itís no substitute for properly investing oneís capital.

To paraphrase Einstein, in the long run the choice is not between sustainability and non-sustainability; itís between sustainability and non-existence. And the savage efficiency of our resource extraction technology makes the long run shorter each day.

So what now?

I hate to think that it will take the ecological or economic equivalent of a third DUI conviction with departure of spouse and kids to get Americans, drunk on oil, to start the sometimes painful, often difficult and continual transformation that would allow to live another way. But in the current political climate, with a complete absence of forward looking energy or environmental policy, I fear we are headed for such a bottom.

So what are we to do? Like many scholars, I am better at analyzing (perhaps even enjoying) problems than at implementing solutions. But I can share with you a path that I see from our current crisis to a system where humans can share the planet with their nonhuman neighbors.

We have lived within our ecological means before. The drive to sustainability may not be qualitatively different than simple frugality. My father, a child of the Great Depression and World War II, could not easily get himself either to buy or to dispose of anything. I have heard that it takes at least a generation before some Vietnamese immigrant families can get themselves to toss food scraps. Scarcity taught these people that low prices blind us to the real challenges in making and getting the things we need and to the value that remains in objects inconvenient for us to keep.

McDonough and Braungart point out that the economic factors that fostered the industrial revolution, seemingly infinite natural resources and the efficiency of mass production, have left us with very poor industrial design principles. Our products are made to ignore their natural context. They are constructed of mixtures of biological and industrial materials. The biological materials contaminate the metals and plastics, making them harder to reuse. The industrial ingredients prevent the biologicals from serving as food for decomposers. Landfills are full of expensive junk.

Let us hope thereís another way. McDonough and Braungart remind us that the biomass of ants on the planet is greater than the biomass of humans, but each generation of ants leaves its environment more able to support life than before. Following the example of natural systems, they propose that the most efficient systems of production will interlock, with the waste from one process feeding another. In sustainable ecosystems, nothing is owned. The matter passes from one form to another driven by solar energy. Likewise they propose that the things businesses sell should be services, not products. We would buy not a single washing machine that will soon be leaking machine oil into the drinking water wells downstream of a landfill, but a contract to provide the parts and labor to keep a clothes washing mechanism operating in my basement. If something breaks, the seller must make it right AND remove the broken pieces. If I have sold a lifetime commitment to keep a machine running, I have a great incentive to make the parts sellable when they wear out.

In 1975, 3M company scientist, Dr. Joseph Ling, began a program called "Pollution Prevention Pays," or 3P. Under the more familiar strategy of pollution control, we do business as usual up to the point where waste is about to be released into the environment, when we divert or treat it. Often we are just shifting the environmental harm from one medium or place to another. In extreme cases, we might term this approach "pollution denial" since what would have been air or water pollution ends up as solid waste or vice versa.

But, the strategy of pollution prevention we examine all stages of a process looking for ways to reduce the environmental harm. After just one year, Ling reported that 3M had prevented the emission of 1.5 million pounds of pollutants by redesigning production processes. This may not seem like much, less than one tenth of the 13 million of municipal solid waste we generate in Connecticut each day. But, more important than the mass of waste is that 3M saved $11 million dollars. According to the company website (http://www.3m.com/about3m/pioneers/ling.jhtml), as of this year, 3M has put 4,650 innovations in place based on employee suggestions. The total first-year savings from these process innovations is 1.6 billion pounds of pollution and $810 million. These figures are based on the first year each process was in place, and of course, the savings continue year after year. The innovations were created by giving bonuses and recognition to employees who found ways to reduce waste or to use wastes from one process as feedstock for another. 3Mís work formed the basis of the federal Pollution Prevention Act of 1990.

Itís the existence of niches that drives or permits adaptation. More than any other animal, humans flexibly create their own niche. Just as the rainforest is not the result of wishful thinking but of fierce competition to exploit each mole of nitrogen, each joule of sunlight or biomass, if we can create policies and markets that reflect the true cost of non-sustainable exploitation and the true value of natural diversity, human economic systems will evolve to exploit the competitive advantage that comes from efficient manufacture of products and services designed to work within their natural context rather than against it.

Anthony Benoit is a professor of Environmental Engineering Technology at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, CT.